The title track on The Ascension is one of the best songs Sufjan Stevens has ever written. Accompanying himself on keyboard with a sad, pulsing melody, Stevens uses precise and empathetic language to address faith and hopelessness, regret and revelations. He shouts out a character from King Lear. He rhymes “confess” with “confess.” He declares life to be meaningless—and he sounds like he means it. “To think I was acting like a believer,” he sings in his feathery, heartbroken way, “when I was just angry and depressed.” It is the only song on the album that fits squarely into his comfort zone, where questions of life and death feel as intimate as the words to a love song.
Also worth noting: It takes more than an hour to get here. Along the way, there are slow jams and dancefloor singalongs, a panic attack set to creeping industrial music and what sounds like Stevens’ score for a campy ’80s horror movie. It is exhaustive and dense and detailed—which, of course, is nothing new. From his 2005 breakthrough Illinois to his last proper solo album, 2015’s grief-stricken Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has always worked best when he immerses himself in his subjects, encouraging the same devotion from listeners. And while The Ascension lacks the direct throughline of these high-water marks, it is another huge leap, an attempt at rebuilding his sound from the ground up.
The majority of the album was recorded with a drum machine and several Prophet synthesizers while Stevens’ more characteristic equipment—acoustic guitars and banjos—were in storage during a move. Leaving his longtime Brooklyn home for a more scenic and remote spot in the Catskills, the 45-year-old songwriter found new hobbies, like getting off the internet and buying a tractor. Consciously or not, these songs follow a similarly picturesque voyage, zooming out from the daily grind toward the kinds of refrains that have become pop music clichés, largely because of how good they feel to say and hear: I wanna love you. Run away with me. Tell me you love me.
It’s one of the first things that strikes you about this blocky, electronic music—the pared-down language and echoed refrains from radio hits and pop culture. The cerebral, ambitious songwriter—whose tracklists once looked like stage directions to a quirky play—now seems intent on speaking directly, sweeping you away with him. It leads to seductions (“Make love to me/Surrender your spirit/Sing my eulogy”), threats (“Go on wipe that look off your face”), and bare confessions. At one point, he sings in a breathy whisper, “I shit my pants and wet the bed”—a hard thing to imagine coming from a performer who has worn enormous angel wings on stage.
Stevens attempted something similar on another major pivot, 2010’s The Age of Adz. In those songs, he sang over buzzing synths and clattering rhythms, gravitated toward conversational language, and steered away from the nuanced storytelling and character studies of his past. At the same time, the compositions on Adz were a continuation of his more symphonic work, surrounding his voice with countermelodies and choirs, building to flute-accompanied…
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